Amateur Hour

Remembering to Breathe

©Alex Carlton

I’m having the best horse show season of my 35 year career in the ring. Yet I’ve barely been subject to the judge’s eye myself.

I love being in the show ring and brim with the same level of excitement from open schooling show to prestigious finals. I rarely get nervous, I’ve come to accept my mistakes with forgiveness rather than self-loathing, and finally have my inner junior equitation queen in check because listen, Tailored Sportsman’s now come in four-way stretch.

However, inside the arena walls, under the watchful eyes of spectators and rail birds alike, is not the most important thing this year. Instead, it has been the experience of taking a group of eager Smartphone addicted, horse-crazy pre-teens, their horse-enabling parents, and their trusty steeds to competitions that has made me so incredibly happy.

Let me be very clear, it is also far and away the MOST STRESSFUL show season of my life!

A fistful of Xanax should be mandatory to even step foot near a schooling ring, let alone hope “your” kids exit the ring with all eight limbs intact and, if you are really lucky, a smile.

Reno and Sydney. ©Sarah Ayer

I do my best to prepare them for the task ahead, praying to all the Goddesses, Gods and otherly beings in the universe they will remember even one thing you’ve been working on for months—like this is not the Indy 500 and you will not save time shaving corners in the hunters.

I bark “all the things” at them in my best imitation of the Peanuts teacher as they trot past in a hack class—sit two, more leg, shoulders back! And I tell them to have fun and make choices…good, bad, both…but really I’m wishing horses could talk and assure me they know the course starts on the left lead single.

Then I stop breathing.

Seriously. Every single round, every near-miss of a canter lead or wrong diagonal is the longest in my whole life. I’m an 1800’s Southern Belle, dramatically gasping and clutching my pearls at the near side swipe from a rouge bucking pony in a flat. I’m the hardened old coot wincing when one of mine cuts off a competitor in front of the judge. All the while wondering what it would take for the show to set up a wet bar at the in-gate for these moments.

My anxiety isn’t due to fear of the danger when asking a 1,200 pound prey animal to keep it together despite yapping dogs, wild plastic bags and heaven forbid pink flowers in the show ring. I trust these horses and ponies to take care of their Instagram loving minions and return them safely to me at the end of the class.

Sydney texting on Reno. Photo courtesy of the author.

No, I deprive myself of live-giving oxygen because I want so very badly for them to do their best, to make those choices (good and bad), and to have such great experiences they come back to the ring again and again until they are a crazy 40-year-old pony kid standing ringside. You know, like me.

Only now do I completely appreciate how my own mom has felt these past 35 years and forgive her for the times I heard her heart stop when I took a flyer or chocolate chipped like a champ! I’m beyond lucky for us to now be side by side, both desperately clutching the rail as “the kids” careen around the ring.

Rylee and Sebastian, Kaylee and Joey. A charming selfie, of course!

This summer I’ve experienced begging. Cajoling. Flattering. Pouting. And that’s just from the parents. Totally kidding.

I cannot fathom how annoying I was prior to the age of 14, let alone if I would have had access to a Smartphone and social media to plead my case for more shows or extra time at the barn.

I spent a large portion of last week (and now this week) being badgered about our next show via text message by a 12-year old. She knows just the right buttons to push in that way only kids do. I threw her up on my paint horse, Reno, just for kicks to school at our first show. Some may say this was a questionable choice as my fate on the other side of the in-gate was sealed, but I get no greater joy than watching a horse I’ve brought along take care of a kid he absolutely adores as they try to figure it out together.

The pair live three hours apart and only catch up at monthly horse shows while Reno trail rides on “summer vacation” with my mom in Northeastern Wisconsin between competitions.

Reno and Sydney. ©Sarah Ayer

Once we confirmed our August six-day extravaganza, the week’s series of texts switched to questions about what she should write in her “Rider Bio.” This is what the announcer will read while I’m in near-cardiac arrest as they head in for their very first hunter derby. This bio currently includes the line, “The first day I met Reno I knew I loved him.”

Here, horse show manager, take all my money. Take all her dad’s money. Heck, take her little sister’s college fund, too.

I have also had the opportunity to take two eager sister equestrians to experience some “firsts” in the ring—first horse show ever, first time jumping at a horse show and first threat of their stirrups being pulled if tack wasn’t clean and boots weren’t polished.

Watching the pre-show nerves take over and knowing they would remember this for the rest of their lives was priceless. When I thought I couldn’t be more proud of the younger sister (who was absent-mindedly gnawing on her pony’s ear as we stood ringside, kids are so weird) she begged beyond begged to add one more jumping class at the next height. This kid, who wouldn’t canter a circle this Fall in the indoor, had found her groove.

Her sister, whose green OTTB recently suffered a sidelining injury, eagerly accepted her mom’s offer to show her horse. With only two weeks in the tack she demonstrated an amazing can-do attitude and put in stellar round after round.

In my mind, they dropped the mic.

These horses and their two-legged sidekicks fill my heart and make me burst with pride. All the sleep-deprived nights of braiding, all the long trailer hauls through the summer of highway construction in Wisconsin, and all the “distractions” during times I should be focusing on the day job are so worth it when I see them leave the ring with giant smiles.

The joy, the immense pressure, the dare to blink or something might happen feelings come from watching these girls get out there and win, and go out there and lose. Gracefully, or just keep going and you better find a different ride home!

Syd and me. Photo courtesy of the author.

And truly, it is only made possible thanks to a handful of understanding, supportive and tolerant moms and dads, and most importantly a gaggle of incredibly tolerant horses (and one pony).

So I’m having a totally unexpected best horse show season of my life.

A show season teaching me lessons I should transfer to “real life” in patience, understanding and how to block out the incessant yammering of pre-teen girls. A summer of losing my mind repeating the questions, “Is your tack clean? Why aren’t your boots polished yet? Do you know your course? How about what class they are on? Do you like riding with stirrups? Yes? THEN POLISH YOUR BOOTS!”

I am most certainly unnecessarily adding more gray hair to my own mane, but I cannot imagine any place I would rather be than at the in-gate with a brown paper bag as I hyperventilate if they get called back for the Handy Round!


About the Author

Jorna Taylor is your average obsessive horse owner, spending countless hours watching friends ride in circles in the dust or rushing home elated to find the new Dover catalog has arrived. She captures the more comical and interesting moments of her riding journey on her blog. Check it out at jornataylor.com.